From loss to celebration | 11 September 2016

Texts: Jeremiah 4:11-12,22-28; Luke 15:1-10

 

It’s our first Sunday back in this building which is feeling both familiar and new.  It’s the opening Sunday of the Christian Education year.  And it’s the fifteen year anniversary, today, of the 9/11 attacks.

Any one of these three could be the focus of a worship theme.  But with all three we have a full plate.

One of the most startling realizations I had this past week was that for all of our young people starting Sunday school today, 9/11 is an historical event.  Something to read and hear stories about, but not something they, you, experienced personally.  Even our high school seniors were just two or three years old when it happened.  Recent college grads were in their first years of elementary school.  The post 9/11 world is the only world you’ve known.  Fifteen years ago our country was the big kid out on the playground, and got sucker punched in front of everyone.  We’ve been hitting back ever since, uncertain how to heal.

I love how our lectionary scriptures keep us grounded in a bigger story.  A story that stands on its own, yet manages to speak something fresh into our time.  Today’s two readings share a common theme of loss, with Jeremiah anticipating an impending loss, and Luke offering parables that conclude in celebration, on the other side of loss.  Loss is something that happens at every level of existence, from the national loss of an event like 9/11, to personal loss – a sheep, a coin, a parent, an ability, losing our bearings, losing our religion, losing our mind.  Loss.

Civil rights veteran John Perkins is fond of saying that a leader is someone who is willing to enter into the pain of their people.  By this definition, the prophet Jeremiah was an exemplary leader of the people of Judah during a period of national crisis.  His public witness spanned 40 years before and during the great exile, when Jerusalem and its temple were crushed by the Babylonians.  Everyone of social standing was carried away in exile.  Only the poor were left behind to work the land.

Jeremiah is sometimes known as the ‘weeping prophet.’  At the beginning of chapter 9 he cries out, “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people.”

Chapter four, which we read part of, contains an even more visceral description of Jeremiah entering into the pain of his people.  In Verse 19 he cries out, “My anguish, my anguish!  I writhe in pain!  Oh, the walls of my heart!  My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war.”  His people are about to be swallowed up by the violence of a massive empire, and Jeremiah is about to have a heart attack.  He feels the anguish and anxiety in his capillaries.  Being a prophet can be hazardous to one’s health.

Just as aside, it’s interesting to see the rise in the emphasis on self-care these days.  There’s a growing awareness, a healthy awareness, that taking care of your own heart is not only good for you, but good for the movement.  Jeremiah could have used this counsel.

Jeremiah 4 continues with a remarkable passage.  There are only two places in the Hebrew Bible that contain the poetic Hebrew phrase ToHu va BoHu.  In English it is translated as “formless and void,” or “formless and empty,” or, the more poetic, “welter and waste.”  It shows up here in Jeremiah 4:23.  The other, much more familiar reference, is Genesis 1.  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  And the earth, it was formless and void.”  ToHu va BoHu.

In Genesis, this characterizes the beginning point of creation.  It is the condition of chaos and disorder into which the god, Elohim, speaks, and thus creates.  It’s an account of structure emerging from no-structure that unfolds kind of like a time lapse video that we didn’t take of our stage and kitchen renovations.  Start with the void right after demolition, and watch it emerge from nothing more than an idea.  Seth Trance and Ajay Massey skillfully play the part of Elohim.  The configuration takes shape, all the infrastructure is set in place, and finishing touches are made.  It is complete, but merely beginning.  The stage is set, so to speak.  The platform is ready for action, the backdrop is ready for artistic expression, and the kitchen is ready to start cooking up all kinds of goodness.  The kitchen is almost ready.

In Genesis, Elohim utters language into the formlessness and void.  Light!  Land!  Creatures of sea, earth, and sky.  Humanity.  Order and life emerge from disorder.  Scattered atoms and molecules co-ordinate and co-operate.  Creation flows forth in ever more complex arrangements, creating and recreating itself.

Humans are birthed with god-like powers, in the image of Elohim.  The bright light of consciousness burns strong within them.  More than other creatures, they subdue animal instinct.  They will soon start making stuff, making decisions.  And Elohim saw it all, and lo, it was very good.

This is the cosmos that Genesis 1 narrates into being.   This is the sacred world of original blessing and goodness that permeated the Hebrew mind.  The world into which the children of Abraham and Sarah, the children of Israel, are born, called to be a blessing to all people.

And so when Jeremiah samples this phrase from Genesis, he conjures this entire meaning-making structure of Hebrew myth.  But for Jeremiah, the prophet of weeping and anguish, creation has gone terribly awry.   The prophet says, “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was formless and void, Tohu va Bohu, and to the heavens, and they had no light.  I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking…I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.”  When Jeremiah looks at what is happening to his people and land, he sees Genesis 1 in reverse.  The video is playing backwards.  The people, the birds, the light, are gone, and we’re back to welter and waste.  The world that he loves has been un-created.  It is a picture of devastating loss.

And it’s important to recognize this as a double loss.  There is the loss of temple, and land, the loss of precious lives, the loss of political independence.  That’s one kind of loss.  But there’s another form of loss that is equally or perhaps even more anguishing.  There is the loss of a coherent way of making sense of the world.  A crisis of meaning.  By evoking the foundational meaning-making myth of his people, Jeremiah is acknowledging that not only have the structures of their buildings been leveled, but so too has the structure of their minds.  A people whose identity was attached so closely to land, temple, and king, now has none of those.  Not only did their god not protect them, but, as far as they could imagine, their god turned against them, rousing their enemies to come and destroy them.  And now, neither they nor their go have a place to call home.  They have been exiled from all they hold sacred.  The stories they told about themselves and their divinely ordained destiny no longer fit their present reality.

After the weeping, what’s next?  In the late 60’s psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified five stages of grief:  Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  But when a loss messes with the mythic structure of our minds, there’s even more work to be done.

If we can recognize ourselves, and our nation, in this story, we might wonder if we too have undergone a double loss in the last 15 years.  We’ve done well in the rebuilding of the physical structures, but our national myths and sense of collective meaning are not near as solid.  I wonder if this is one of the reasons why “Make America Great Again” has captured the imaginations of so many people.  It’s an incredibly powerful myth.  We were once a blessed and great people.  We will be great again.  Never mind that the further you go back in time toward the elusive golden age, the more and more people are disenfranchised, the closer we get to outright patriarchy, slavery of Africans and genocide of Natives.  But myths and facts don’t always rhyme, and when our meaning making structures have been rendered formless and void, we need a myth to give shape to our reality.  Even the postmodern allergy to meta-narratives is itself a kind of myth.  We can shoulder all kinds of losses and make it through to the other side of acceptance, but when we lose our story of who we are, and how we fit into the bigger picture, we are truly lost.

Why is it that a professional football player who is refusing to stand for the national anthem until something is done about black suffering is getting so much attention these days?  Could it be that his action is a full on threat to the kind of myth some folks are trying to hold on to with all their might?  A myth of our own inherent goodness and benevolence and blessedness.  For the myth to really work, everyone has to stand and pledge their allegiance to it.

When I sat down to write this sermon I didn’t set out to talk about myth, but that’s obviously the direction it took.  We are starting the Sunday school year today.  More than just learning information and  Bible stories, I suggest that the most important learning we can be doing together is the learning of an alternative myth to the ones we are regularly told.  And this is a very Anabaptist and Mennonite approach to what faith and religion offer us.  Rather than teaching us how to be nice and well-adjusted people within the political and economic systems we inhabit, our Christ-centered faith has something to say about the very underlying assumptions of what it means to be blessed, to be successful, to be human.

Our faith proposes that the death of Jesus of Nazareth on a Roman cross is the ultimate myth-busting event of history.  The gods of empire, nationalism, and more recently, consumer capitalism, rely on the myth of their own goodness in order to survive.  They are there to protect and shepherd us into safety and prosperity.  They are watching over us for our well-being.  Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil, for they are with us.  The nation’s arsenal of weapons will guard us.  The market’s vast array of consumer goods will comfort us.

But when the one who was without fault challenged the goodness of the entire program, gathering and embracing the people it left behind, going on a rant in the sacred precincts of the temple that the leaders of his own people had worked so hard to restore to make Jerusalem great again….When that one was deemed a threat to the whole project, and brutally and publicly executed, it exposed the whole mythic framework of the empire, and any religion that colludes with it.  It rendered it formless and void of any power to save those who most needed salvation.

The earth shook, the sky went dark, the temple veil was torn in two, and the age old myth that had ruled the world for so long was uncreated.  For those with eyes to see, this was ground zero of the apocalypse, and we’ve been living in a post-apocalyptic world ever since.   The old myths are still gasping for breath, grasping for attention, but we’re not buying it.

You also don’t have to buy anything I’m saying.  It’s one way of reading the meaning of the Christian gospel.

And that’s not the end of it.

The gospel speaks not only of crucifixion and myth-busting, but also offers a myth of its own, a story into which we can live.  It’s a story where death is followed by resurrection.  New life, not of our own making, but life given back to us, freed from illusion, energized by love rather than fear, motivated toward restorative justice rather than vengeance.  It’s a story in which everything and everyone belongs.  It’s a story which includes death and loss, but transcends it within a wider circle of abundance and life which leads to more life.  It’s a story in which a single sheep and a single coin, a single life, is deemed valuable enough to go on a great search, to light a lamp and look under furniture.  To poke around in the darkest corners, until the lost one is found.  And when she is found, to not interogate or point fingers or lay blame, but to put out an invite to the entire list of contacts, and throw a celebration, a great fiesta, because what was lost has been found.  And the earth and heavens rejoice.

Joint worship service with North Broadway United Methodist Church| 28 August 2016

While our sanctuary undergoes renovations, we held a joint worship service with our neighbors at North Broadway United Methodist Church.  For the sermon their pastor and I each talked about our own faith traditions and how our congregations are living that out.  Below are my portions of the sermon. 

Text: Matthew 5:1-12

You all have been such good neighbors to us this summer.  We have held both a regional conference and three Sundays of worship in your fellowship hall.  And it feels very fitting that we now get to worship together, so many thanks for that.

In my experience, people tend to have three main frames of reference for Mennonites.

The first, and probably most common preconception, is that Mennonites are kind of like the Amish.  We are Amish-lite.  Same great taste, but less filled with rules and regulations about dress and technology.  And this is kind of historically accurate.  Mennonites and Amish do share a spiritual ancestry.  The 16th century Anabaptists emphasized that baptism and the Christian life were to be arrived at through a conscious adult decision.  Anabaptist means “re-baptizers.”  At the beginning of the 18th century, Jacob Amman (Amish) believed his sisters and brothers in this stream of the church were becoming too lax in their enforcement of discipline, and that people who weren’t willing to be baptized as adults should not be considered “saved.” A new fellowship formed around his leadership, and the Amish, and the Mennonites parted ways…but we remain cousins.

A second association some people have with Mennonites is what we do.  Mennonites are active in disaster relief in the US and Canada, our Mennonite Central Committee has people serving around the world in community development and peacemaking efforts.  Mennonites were involved in helping initiate the current Fair Trade movement.  Some of you Methodists know us Columbus Mennonites through our partnership serving a monthly supper at the YWCA Family Center, or for our shared involvement in the BREAD organization.  We also lined up close to each other in this summer’s Pride Parade.

So Mennonites tend to be known for being Amish-lite, for what we do, and the third thing some people pick up on is what we don’t do.  Specifically, that we are a pacifist tradition, and more specifically, we teach conscientious objection regarding participation in warfare and violence.  This gets at part of your question.

This goes back to those early 16th century Anabaptists who lived during a time of great social and religious upheaval.  It actually has some interesting parallels to our own time as the internet continues to reshape social and economic life, decentralizing access to information, making communication possible in ways that simply didn’t exist 25 years ago.  Apparently the world wide web had its 25 year birthday this past week, August 23rd, so happy birthday invisible force that controls our lives.

In the 15th and 16th century, the great technological breakthrough was the printing press, which, very quickly, allowed for the dissemination of information, books, the Bible.  Those who previously depended on priests and professionals to mediate the written word for them now had it in hand.  This had a similar kind of decentralizing effect on social and political and certainly religious life, which were all pretty closely inter-related at the time.

Some of the early Anabaptists, eager to study scripture but untrained in historical interpretation, came to believe that the Kingdom of God was indeed at hand, as the New Testament says often, and some took up weapons to help the process along.

This is where our namesake, Menno Simons, comes into the picture.  He was a Catholic priest who had become sympathetic to Anabaptists, but he flatly rejected the use of violence.  In his reading of the New Testament he saw no room for followers of Jesus to engage in killing or even defending themselves with violent means.  His words from the hymn we sang together were a central part of his teaching: “We are people of God’s peace.”

Like so many Christian groups who claim to be recovering the true message of Christ, our Mennonite forbears, Bibles in hand, fresh off the printing press, were convinced they were recovering Jesus’ original message.  In this case, peaceful living.  And they lived this out with great conviction.  It is a martyr tradition and many of them died for their faith, unwilling to align with any of the religious factions developing across central Europe taking and defending territory.

And this is a conviction that very much lives on in our Mennonite faith.  We see it as both an inward and an outward journey.  Cultivating peace with oneself and peace with God is inseparable from building peace in families and neighborhoods, and across tribal and national boundaries.

So we, the spiritual descendants of Menno and the Anabaptists, are still haunted and inspired by the beauty and barely visible horizon of the peaceable kingdom that Jesus taught and lived and to which his death and resurrection point.

—————–

 

It’s great to be able to tell a few stories about our congregation, but I have to say that it feels a little bit like proud boasting, which for Mennonites is really the only unforgiveable sin.  So let me first pose a few humbling questions: What happens when a persecuted religious sect, Mennonites – that gets used to thinking of itself as a persecuted religious sect – becomes members of the comfortable class within a global superpower?  How did Mennonites become white Americans, transitioning from an ethnic minority to people who benefit from the long history of racial injustice in the US?  Since we are now made up of people from many backgrounds, how do we be ‘community’ for each other in practical ways and resist the forces of individualism?

One of the ways of talking about Columbus Mennonite Church, is that we are a group of people who  encourage and pursue questions.  Many of them are difficult questions like these.

This year we’re having a specific focus on antiracism.  Many of our worship services, Christian Education themes, programming, and mission have been geared toward exploring and learning about racial injustice and white privilege.  It feels like a very long journey.  I have no idea if we’re going about it the right way, but one of the signs, for me, that it might be working, has been various comments from parents that their kids are now asking good questions at home about racism.

Last spring we recognized that a number of us are carrying burdensome debt, especially young adults with education debt.  We challenged the congregation to raise $10,000, to be distributed evenly to those in need of debt relief, who would remain anonymous recipients.  It would be mostly symbolic, like a mini practice of the Jubilee from the book of Leviticus.  Much to our joyful surprise, we ended up raising over $25,000, distributing that to 28 individuals, a little over $900 of debt reduction for each.  It was a pretty cool way of being community, even as many of those debts remain burdensome.

Two summers ago we did a Twelve Scriptures project.  We surveyed the congregation for people’s twelve core scriptures that shape how they approach faith.  We then did a worship series on the top twelve.  The Beatitudes, which we heard here, made the final cut.  The Beatitudes talk about what it means to be Blessed, or fortunate.  It’s certainly not your typical checklist for what it means to live the blessed life.  Blessed are the economically secure.  Check.  Blessed are the educated.  Check.  Blessed are the upwardly mobile, the well dressed and well spoken, those who have their stuff together.

Instead, Jesus said, Blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted.

It’s a pretty counterintuitive list of blessings.  So I think we as a congregation try to be a blessing in our community and in our world, and also recognize that being a follower of Jesus puts us in constant jeopardy of having our whole notion of blessing turned upside down.

Overall, we find that we have so much more in common with people of faith like yourselves than we have different, and so we value every chance we get to learn with others how we can better live out our baptismal vows and be the body of Christ in Columbus, Ohio in the 21st century.

What are a few ways you all at North Broadway UMC are living out your faith?  And if Methodists are cool with boasting, please do that as much as you’d like.

“She stood up straight” | 21 August 2016

Text: Luke 13:10-17

 The great 16th century reformer Martin Luther characterized the human condition with the Latin phrase “homo incurvatus in se.”  I never studied Latin, but this is a good one for beginners.  It sounds a lot like its English equivalent.  Homo – Human.    incurvatus – curved in.    in se – on itself.  This is the predicament of our species, Luther taught, our sinful state.  Humanity curved in on itself.

This can be pictured fairly easily.  It’s visual.  It is bodily.  Rather than having one’s head up, eyes looking out, ears attentive, the body curves in on itself.  Incurvatus.  And we are stuck.  We can’t see beyond ourselves.  We can’t really reach out beyond ourselves.  We are curved in on ourselves.

And if this is the broken condition, then salvation looks like this:  Having one’s back straightened, one’s shoulders lifted, one’s head raised, eyes now alert, arms open.  Curved in à salvation.

I’ve been assuming these two positions at random times the last few days, partly to feel the difference between them, and partly because I overworked my back one day during the stay-cation portion of our vacation and am still feeling it.  The hidden cost of do it yourself house projects.

I once heard someone say that you know you’re getting older when you bend over to pick something up and you think, Now what else can I do while I’m down here.  I’m not that bad off – yet.

It just so happens that this week’s gospel lectionary has to do with incurvatus and standing up straight.  Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, the final time he will do this in Luke.   It’s the Sabbath, the day of rest.  And there was a woman there.  A woman whose name we never learn, identified only by her disability.  As Luke tells it, she had been disabled by a spirit for 18 years.  She was bent over.  She couldn’t stand up straight.

Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, but when he notices her, he interrupts his own lecture, and calls her over.

The woman comes over, up, in to the center.  Everyone’s attention turns.  The object of the day’s lesson is no longer a scroll.  It’s no longer ancient words being parsed, text being meditated on and interpreted.  All eyes are focused on this woman.  The object of the day’s lesson has suddenly become a body.  The bent over, crooked body of this woman.

We have been taught the skills of interpreting texts, but how do you interpret a body?  What’s it saying?  What does it mean?  What’s the story here?  Behind the obvious plain reading, what are the subtle and nuanced forces at work?

Knowing what we know about how women were treated in that world – very poorly – and keeping in mind the special attention Luke gives throughout his gospel to marginalized people, this woman becomes all the more central to what Jesus proclaimed in his first synagogue appearance in Luke, in his hometown of Nazareth.  That the good news for all people had to do with proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free.

When Luther wrote about incurvatus, he meant it primarily as being self-centered.  We are narcissistic, naval gazers, and the more we are curved inward the smaller our world gets, until it is just the isolated self, pitying itself.  This is certainly part of the picture, and seems to be the demon that Luther himself, a person of power and privilege, wrestled with most of his life.

There’s a good chance Luke is inviting us into an additional dimension of incurvatus in this story.  Like the other gospel writers Luke is fond of linking different stories together through textual clues.  Jesus will justify this Sabbath healing by arguing that people are willing to untie their ox on the Sabbath and lead it to water, so how much moreso should this woman, tied up for 18 long years, be unbound.  Jesus will soon perform another Sabbath healing, this time for a man.  He’ll make another ox-based argument – this time about getting an ox out of a pit.  The connection invites us to pay attention to how the stories illuminate eachother.

Sabbath, Sabbath.  Ox, ox.  Woman, man.  Healed, healed.

Another pertinent connection here is with a story right before it, and that thread in this case is that number 18.  Eighteen years she had this disabling spirit.  Just a few verses before, in the same chapter, Jesus recalls a recent event in which the tower of Siloam fell on a group of people, killing all of them.  All 18 of them.  It was common, and still is, unfortunately, to moralize such events.  What did those 18 people do wrong to deserve a fate like that?  Jesus flatly rejects this thinking, saying “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all others living in Jerusalem?  I tell you, No”  (Luke 13:4-5).

And now we are introduced to this woman, disabled by a spirit for 18 years.  What, Luke might be nudging us to ask, has fallen on this woman over the course of those 18 years to cause her to be, in the words of the NRSV, “bent over and quite unable to stand up straight?”  What kind of spirit is this doing the disabling?

This leaves plenty to the imagination.  Lots of room for midrash, for filling in the blanks, which for preachers is almost irresistible.  Was this one tragic incident 18 years ago that curved this woman back in on herself, or was this a barrage of events?  An accumulation, slowly bending her over until she’s no longer recognizable, even to herself?

When does the wide eyed girl, full of life, full of herself, first learn that she is less-than?  When do the shoulders first slump?  When does the head first dip, ever so slightly?  Is it a word, an offhand remark?  Is it an unwanted touch?  Is it just something in the air, long filled with the weight of such things?

How much does it take before it really starts to show?  How long does she resist before it’s too much to hold?  It’s wearing.  Tiring.  The body psychosomatically bends, curves in on itself, like a protective shell.  An adaptive feature for survival in a hostile environment.  If it stays there long enough, it might even start to feel normal.  This is who I am, the mind starts to tell the body.  Maybe she even convinces herself that it’s better this way.  It’s easier not to look up and out.  Stay down, stay away, try to slip into the synagogue unnoticed to hear the teacher from Nazareth everyone’s been talking about.

Well, so much for that plan.

In his final recorded synagogue appearance Jesus has set aside the text, and called her up.  And there she is, with her bent body.

In his final meal with his closest companions, Jesus will put his own body front and center.  He will tell them that eating the bread and drinking the cup is a participation in his own body.  If they would see with eyes of faith, they would see that Jesus’ body is not just his own, but that they all share in that body.  The church has always taught that to be a part of the church is to share in the same body, the crucified and risen body of Christ.  We share in the sufferings, and we share in the miracle of being raised up.  Resurrection.

For those perceptive listeners in the synagogue that day, they may have recognized that they too share in the body of this woman.  She is not merely an unfortunate individual, but a sign of our collective reality.  A sign of how we are curved in on ourselves, and a sign of how we perpetuate patterns and habits and systems that cause others and whole groups of people to be bent over.  How we are all possessed by a disabling spirit.  Had they been especially tuned in, they would have perceived that their own salvation was connected to the salvation of this woman, their bodies made more whole when she is able to stand up straight, as Jesus will soon enable her to do.

Not everyone will see things this way.  The leader of the synagogue is not pleased.  He grasps for a reason for why this can’t be right.  It’s the Sabbath, come be cured on another day.  It’s not really technically against the Torah, and he’ll be shamed by Jesus’ ox analogy, losing the textual argument.  It’s just, you know, not how we do things around here.  It’s against protocol.  It messes with the order of things.

But in this story he’s a lone voice for this perspective.  Luke says, “When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’  When he had laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.”

This passage ends by saying, “And the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that Jesus was doing.”  The collective body is made more whole through the healing of this woman.

By the grace of God, Humanity curved in on itself, Homo incurvatus in se, is raised up.  And we get a taste of the cup of salvation.  And the body rejoices.

 

 

“Neither shalt thou stand idly by” |24 July 2016

Text: Luke 10:25:37

A woman was walking out from her house to her car when suddenly two men snatched her purse, pushed her down, and fled the scene.  Several of her neighbors heard the commotion, opened their curtains, but quickly closed them again.  Another saw what happened and called 911.  Several others went out to the woman, helped her up, and stayed with her until the police and medics arrived.

Now the two men who mugged her were convicted felons.  They’d recently received early release from prison for good behavior.  They had every intention of finding a job and leading productive lives, but every place they applied rejected their application because of their status as felons.  Like other felons, they were barred from receiving federal cash assistance, food stamps, and other benefits.  They were also ineligible to live in public housing.  Without any source of income and without shelter, they soon resorted to petty crime to supply their needs.

They were never caught for stealing the woman’s purse.  One day, soon afterwards, they saw a news feature about a local organization with an internship program to help the formerly incarcerated get job placements.  Rather than using the word “felon,” or “ex-felon,” this organization referred to people like them as “returning citizens.”  The men visited the organization, were accepted as a part of the program, and after excelling through the six month internship, began full time jobs.  Once they were settled in an apartment with some extra cash, one of them had an idea that the other quickly agreed to, even though it involved breaking the law.

Late at night they returned to the home of the woman they had mugged.  They ran up to the mailbox, put an envelope inside (which is illegal), and drove off down the street before anyone saw them.  The next day when the woman was checking her mail she discovered an envelope full of cash, exactly twice the amount stolen from her purse months before.  She would never find out that the same people who robbed her had become her Good Samaritan.

Like Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, this story never actually happened, although I did try to get the legal stuff right about the obstacles returning citizens face with felony charges.  Or maybe this story has happened, without us knowing it.  But it doesn’t have to be historical fact in order to be true.  That’s almost the definition of a parable.  True fiction.

Leviticus 19:18 commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  It’s one of two scriptures cited by an expert in the law as an answer to his own question.  He had asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus had responded by asking him how he saw it.  “What is written in the Torah?” Jesus had asked.  “What do you read there?”

This passage from Leviticus was already recognized as one of the best distillations of the teachings of the Torah.  The prominent Rabbi Hillel, who taught before Jesus’ time and whose teachings Jesus often echoes, was once famously asked by a potential convert to teach him the whole Torah while standing on one leg.  As recorded in the Talmud, Rabbi Hillel assumed the one legged pose and said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.  That is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary.  Go and learn it” (Babylonian Talmud, b. Sabb. 31a).

It’s not an exact quote from Leviticus 19:18, but it gets at the same idea.  According to Rabbi Hillel, and Jesus, and even this expert in the law, fair treatment of one’s neighbor, is the centering principle of the Torah.  Everything else is just commentary.  The Torah is one big jazz performance, with a central theme, accompanied with near endless variations on that theme.

And so simply restating that central theme is not enough for the expert in the law.  “Love your neighbor,” is too general, too broad.  It provokes a follow up question: “And who is my neighbor?”  Give us some commentary, Jesus.  Fill this out for us.  Tell us a story.  Now that the theme has been established, break out the instrument of choice and improvise a variation for us.

And this is what Jesus does.  After being asked this second question, “And who is my neighbor?” he proceeds to tell the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

One day, not so long ago, a young man by the name of Philando Castile was driving down the streets of suburban St. Paul, Minnesota with his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and her four year old daughter.  They were on their way home from grocery shopping.  They were pulled over by police officers who radioed a nearby squad that the two adult occupants looked like people involved in a recent robbery.  The officer approached the car and asked Castile to produce his license and registration.

Now a pastor happened to be standing near the scene.  When he saw an officer pulling over a black man he thought to himself, “This is not going to turn out well.”

An activist was also standing nearby.  When she saw this unfolding in front of her she said to herself, “Oh no, here we go again.”

Now a longtime member of the NRA was walking down the street right where the car had been pulled over.  He heard the officer ask for the license and registration and heard Philando Castile reply that they were in his wallet and he would get them out.  When Castile also gave the officer a heads up that he was licensed to carry a gun and had one on him right now, the NRA member noticed the officer reach for his handgun.  Immediately the longtime member of the NRA ran toward the driver side of the car and thrust his body between the officer and Philando Castile.

The NRA member proceeded to defend the second amendment rights of the driver and demand that the officer put his own gun back in its holster.  Several intense minutes later the situation had deescalated.

The officer went back to his car, resuming his patrol of the neighborhood; and Philando Castile, Diamond Reynolds, and her four year old daughter drove home, to put away their groceries.

Like this story, maybe the parable of the Good Samaritan was based on a true story.  Maybe the introduction of the priest and Levite and Samaritan into the mix was a way of imagining how a tragic story could have turned out differently.  What if?  What if the narrative of violence was to be interrupted by someone we would least expect?  Who, I ask you, was the true neighbor in this story?

Perhaps Jesus created the Parable of the Good Samaritan out of scratch.  Or maybe it came to him from a real situation he’d observed or heard about.  But a close reading of Leviticus 19 makes one wonder whether some key ingredients of the parable were already right there, in Leviticus.

Leviticus 19:18 clearly says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” but Leviticus 19:16, two verses before it, likely gets lost in translation.  The NRSV has it saying, “You shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor.”  If this is the correct translation, and if one were to make a connection between verses 16 and 18 of Leviticus, one might tell a parable much like the one about the robbers who eventually make restitution for their wrongs.  They are caught up in a system in which it is hard to do good, and so they do harm to survive.  After they are shown mercy, they realize they must right the wrongs they’ve done.  They pay back the harm they’ve caused, thereby fulfilling both commandments, Leviticus 19:16: “You shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor.”  Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

I like this story, and since our Bible school theme is Surprise!, I like the surprise twist this places on the familiar parable.  Last week I talked about the injured traveler as the lost character in this parable, the one the original listeners would have identified with but who plays only a minor and passive role in our typical hearing.  But the robbers are the real lost characters.  Why have they stooped to robbing, and where is their redemption?

This is jazz, and a riff like that is perfectly in bounds under the unwritten rules of variations on a theme, but it’s not the variation Jesus took, and that translation of Leviticus 19:16 is not the one the rabbis have favored over the centuries.

The King James Version is a little closer to the plain meaning of the Hebrew, but is still kind of obscure: “neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbor.”  Maybe that wasn’t obscure when it was translated 400 years ago, but I’m not sure what it means to “stand against the blood of thy neighbor.”  But the Hebrew word is indeed “stand” rather than “profit,” and there’s some relationship between that posture, and the blood of one’s neighbor.

The traditional translation from the Jewish Publication Society clarifies this.  It uses the phrase that I included as the sermon title: “neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor.”  This translation makes Leviticus 19:16 a commandment against indifference, and noninvolvement.  It is reaffirmed in other Jewish writings, and it’s enticing to think it could have been the inspiration for the angle Jesus takes in his parable.

One ancient rabbinical teaching stated, “if you are in a position to offer testimony on someone’s behalf you are not permitted to remain silent.” (Sipra Qedosim 4:8; Targum Pseudo-Jonathan).  And since we’re already cited the Talmud this morning, a different Talmud portion acts as further commentary on Leviticus 19:16: “If one sees someone drowning, mauled by beasts, or attacked by robbers one is obligated to save him, but not at the risk of one’s life” (b. Sanh. 73a).  The Talmud wasn’t edited and completed until centuries after Jesus, but that does sound a whole lot like the beginnings of a parable I think I’ve heard before.   In Jewish tradition, from the Torah to the Talmud, indifference, standing idly by, is not acceptable.

Last week I encouraged us to identify with the half dead traveler in Jesus’ parable.  Rather than seeing ourselves only as the helper, this challenges us to find ourselves in a story in which we are not the hero.  This goes against a lot of our training of how to be a good person.

But Jesus does eventually invite his listeners to identify with the Samaritan.  After telling the parable, he asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man?”  To which the left-leaning pacifist reluctantly replies, “I suppose it was the longtime NRA member.”  To which Jesus responds, “Go and do likewise.”

As I hear that original parable spoken to us, especially in our antiracism work, I hear an invitation for us to enter into a dual consciousness.  We are not the hero of this story.  We too need help.  We need delivered from our half-dead state.

And we are also called to the monumental task of overcoming the sin of indifference, or, if the Torah would have its way, the crime of indifference.  “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”

I fully believe that there are countless variations on this theme, and that there is no single right way to do this.  It can range from taking to the streets, to talking with young children who are picking up on this theme and have lots of great questions.

And so, my fellow-non heroes of this story: How might we open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit and not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors?

 

“Half dead” | 17 July 2016

Text: Luke 10:25-37

Toward the end of last year I saw a political cartoon that used the image printed on the bulletin cover.  This was at the peak of the debate about accepting Syrian refugees into the US.  A little over half of the nation’s governors had declared that their states were off limits.

GS

In the cartoon, text was superimposed at the bottom of this image, which said: “Bible school primer for governors during refugee crisis.”  There were also two dark arrows pointing at the travelers exiting the scene, with the words: “These guys are not the heroes of the story.”  Another arrow pointed to the one who had stopped to give assistance, with the text: “This guy is the hero of the story (you want to be this guy).”

GS hero

 

Aside from the political and moral message, a couple things stood out to me with the cartoon.

One was how deeply this parable of the Good Samaritan has made its way into our cultural lexicon.  Of all the stories and parables in the Bible, this is one of the most recognizable.  The political cartoon doesn’t work – or at least not near as well – unless this is the case.  The unwritten assumption is that everybody already knows who the hero is in this story.

The other thing that stood out to me is how much this parable has come to be about the moral agency of these three actors – the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan.  One of the brilliant features of the parable is all the different questions it invites us to ask about why these characters do what they do.  Or don’t do what they don’t do.

The priest and the Levite are both religious figures.  Some commentators have wondered if they were concerned with purity laws, should the half dead person they see by the side of the road become completely dead.  The Torah rendered anyone who comes into contact with a corpse ritually unclean for a week (Numbers 19:11).  We can likely think of other examples when misguided religion is a hindrance to extending mercy and compassion.

A more contemporary angle is that the priest and Levite were simply too busy to stop.  It’s easy for us to imagine them being late for a very important date.  A now-somewhat famous experiment at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1973 tested the hurry factor in acts of compassion.  Forty students participated in this project, which they thought was about public speaking and religious vocation.  Half the students were charged with preparing a speech on job opportunities after seminary, and half were charged with giving a speech about the Good Samaritan.  The speeches were to take place in another building across campus.  As it came time for each student’s turn to speak, some of the students in each group were told that they were running late and needed to hurry to give their speech, while others in each group were told they had plenty of time to make it to the other building.  An actor was strategically placed along the path they would all walk, slumped over, coughing and groaning, in clear need of help.

What the experiment showed was that the topic of the speech they were about to give had no bearing on the students response to this situation – even though one of the speeches was happening in real life along their path.  The determining factor of whether or not students stopped to help the person in need was how much of a rush they were in.  About 10% of the students who were in a hurry stopped, while over 60% of the students who were told they had plenty of time stopped to give some form of assistance.

This rings painfully true to our own experience.  What if our openness to acts of compassion is more determined by the pace of our life rather than what we believe?  Things have certainly not gotten less busy in the 43 years since the experiment.

Martin Luther King Jr. cited this parable often, including in his last public speech, April 3, 1968 in Memphis, speaking to striking sanitation workers, his “mountain top speech.”  Before he got to talking about the mountain top, he talked about the parable of the Good Samaritan, and how the priest and Levite may have been held back by fear.  The Jericho Road was a dangerous road, the robbers who left this man half dead may still be lurking.  King said:  “And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’

At other times King would take a wider lens approach to the parable and suggest that in order to prevent future robberies that the whole Jericho Road needed to be repaved, with some the good lighting and signage.  Personal acts of compassion eventually lead one to call for policy change to address underlying root causes.

The obstacle of religious purity, the obstacle of busyness, the obstacle of fear, the obstacle of structural and policy failure.  Any one of these could be and has been a sermon in itself.  The parable lends itself to many readings.

The parable is about these three characters who face a decision on the Jericho Road.  We identify with these characters.  We know who the hero is, and we know all too well some of the obstacles to acting that out in real life.

But I’d like to recover another dimension of the parable.  Because when Jesus would have told this parable, his audience would not have first identified with any one of those three characters.  The parable begins: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.”

Jerusalem was the holy city, the site of the annual festivals Jesus and his people would have made pilgrimage to, up to several times a year.  The road from Jericho to Jerusalem was a common route for those coming from the northern Galilee region where Jesus lived and taught.  It was and is a winding and hilly road.  A dangerous road, with plenty of places for thieves to hide.  There was a more direct route to Jerusalem from Galilee – straight south.  But that one went through Samaria.  Many folks preferred the long way around, over to the east, then south, then once you hit Jericho you head back west winding your way up to Jerusalem.  Better to risk the dangers of that road than go through the territory of the hated Samaritans.  They hadn’t yet figured out how to build multi-lane highways through undesirable neighborhoods so they could avoid the people altogether.

So when Jesus tells a story about a traveler headed back down the road, from Jerusalem to Jericho, it is the traveler that the people are identifying with.  They can picture the road and the scenery.  They can feel the fear of getting ambushed.  They can easily imagine that it is they who have been left by the side of the road, stripped, beaten, and half dead.  If we would hear as Jesus’ audience first heart it, then we, dear listeners, are that traveler, in desperate need of help.  That’s us.  Our very life depends on someone, anyone, seeing us and taking the time to come attend to our wounds.  Who’s going to do it?  Who’s going to help us?

It’s a different way of experiencing the parable.  We are so used to being in the position of the helper – or at least the position of choosing whether we help or not.  Whether this situation is where we wish to direct our energy, whether this organization is where we give some of our tithe, whether this cause is where we invest our time.  These are all very real and difficult matters to discern.  But in this parable, you’re half dead.  You need help.  You’re so incapacitated that you’re the only character who doesn’t get an arrow pointed at you in a political cartoon.

This past week I read an essay from the Mennonite Quarterly Review that I’m still mulling over.  The author was Philipp Gollner, a new history professor at Goshen College in Indiana.  The title of the essay is “How Mennonites Became White” (MQR 90 April 2016).  The essay starts by recounting a conversation a friend of the author had with a business owner in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  The business owner had said that he employs six people – “three Amish, and three white guys.”  Gollner uses this brief exchange as a launching off point, wondering what it was about the Amish that caused that business owner to distinguish them from the white guys, even though the pigmentation of Amish skin is just as white as others.  How is it, the author wonders, that mainstream Mennonites came to be white moreso than their Anabaptist cousins, the Amish.

It’s a good question.  But I confess that the answer the author presents caught me off guard.  Here’s the author’s own summary of this argument: “I follow the story of the young Mennonite activists who moved to Chicago in 1894 in order to reach the city’s immigrants with works of benevolence and uplift, and to activate fellow Mennonites to transcend their ethnic tribe and shape the future of the nation. These activists did not simply become progressive, or americanized. Though already racially white, they now became recognizable clearly as good, white Protestants – through their belief in the privileged task of improving the world around them, and their desire for a more universally relevant church.”

In other words, this essay argues that Mennonite immigrants from Europe eventually became white Americans by entering into the already-racialized social matrix as helpers.  Or, to put it in the setting of our parable, Mennonites became white by attempting to be the Good Samaritan toward communities of color deemed to be in need.

What do you think of that argument?

Surely it’s not the only way Mennonites became white, but it does put an exclamation point on the original angle of this parable, which flips the script.  In our present context, in 21st century racially charged America, what if, rather than only asking how we might become the Good Samaritan, we see ourselves as being in need.  Highjacked by the side of the road by the invisible tentacles of racism that have beat us senseless, eyes so puffy we can barely see, half alive, half dead.  We allow ourselves to be vulnerable and confess we need help.  Who’s going to help us?

There’s all kinds of dangers and pitfalls this immediately presents.  In no way does this make people of color primarily responsible for helping white folks – their burden of self-liberation now made heavier with the task of liberating others.  It also doesn’t imply that white folks are the main victims of racism.  This is all really tricky.

What it does do, I hope, is call white folks to a posture of humility.  We need help.  We don’t have all the answers.  We don’t always have to be the problem solvers.  We’re hurting in ways we don’t even realize – thinking that we’re privileged and self-actualized when we might be half dead.

We need help from each other.  We need to be gentle with each other, even as we challenge each other.

This road to becoming racially conscious is not an easy road.  Just about every step has potential to be a stumble, and I’ve likely stumbled several times even this morning.  One of the gifts of congregations is that we have a certain trust level with one another, to be able to speak and make mistakes, and learn and grow and practice extending and receiving grace.

This whole story began with a lawyer asking Jesus how he might inherit eternal life.  Jesus proceeds to ask him and others to identify with a traveler who is only half alive.  The healing presence comes from the least expected sources, the Samaritan, the person, the place that the traveler was likely trying to avoid at all costs.

I pray that we recognize our need and that we open ourselves to healing from the most unlikely of sources, whatever, whoever, that might be.

Finding the question | 10 July 2016

Text: Luke 10:25-37

The questioner answers his own question, but remains unsatisfied.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” the lawyer asks Jesus.

It’s a big question.  Like one of the big questions.  Right up there with What is the meaning of life? and What should I be when I grow up? and Where did I leave my phone?

What must I do to inherit eternal life?  Presented with the hypothetical situation of If you could ask Jesus just one question, what would it be? I’m guessing a fair amount of people would choose some version of this question.

Jesus could have taken this one any number of directions.  He could have given a concise answer summarizing his theology of the afterlife.

He could have named specific actions this specific person might take to right their life, like he would soon do with the rich young ruler who would come to him and ask the exact same question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  “Sell all you own, and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me,” Jesus will say.  But not to this person.  Not in this situation.

He could have pointed out the confused nature of the question, how people who inherit something don’t need to do anything to receive what is theirs on account of being a child of the one passing along the inheritance.  A gift, a grace.

Had Jesus been a certain variety of Christian he could have replied, “Accept me into your heart as your personal lord and savior and you will have eternal life.”

But he selects None of the above.  He doesn’t give an answer at all.

Maybe Jesus knows he’s being tested, as Luke tells us when he introduces the lawyer and his question.  Perhaps this is another example of Jesus reframing the conversation, opening up a new set of possibilities the original question leaves out.  Or is Jesus just not all that interested in the question itself?  His refusal to answer another way of saying “EERRNNTT, Wrong question.”

What he does do is direct the question right back at the questioner, giving only a suggestion of where the answer to such a question could be found.  “What is written in the Torah?” Jesus asks.  “What do you read there?”

This was a question well-suited to the lawyer.  In the Jewish world at the time there was no distinction between civil and religious law.  One who carried the title of lawyer was one of the few members of society thoroughly literate and trained in the reading and interpretation of the books of Moses, the Torah, the law.  This person would know inside and out not just the Torah, but also the various interpretative schools that would have grown up through the decades and centuries.  Jesus’ question invites this lawyer to state how he has come to understand all these matters.  “What is written in the Torah?  What do you read there?”

The Torah scholar replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

This response is so insightful and innovative that when Matthew and Mark give their accounts of this exchange, they place these words in the mouth of Jesus rather than the mouth of his conversation partner.  It’s a quotation of two different verses: one from Deuteronomy – You shall love the Lord your God; and one from Leviticus – love your neighbor as yourself.  Both passages were highly valued in Jewish teaching, but there are no records before the gospels of them appearing side by side.  It was an interpretative innovation.  It was a breakthrough in the creation of spiritual technology, like you have the wheel, and you have the suitcase, and then one day someone decides they’re going to see what happens when they make suitcases with wheels – and the world is never the same.

Love God with all your being.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Put them together, and now we’re really going places.  Matthew and Mark attribute this innovation to Jesus himself, but Luke is fine with allowing this lawyer to get the patent on this one.

And Jesus is fine with acknowledging the wisdom of it all.  “You have given the right answer,” he says.  “Do this, and you will live.”

It is perhaps noteworthy that Jesus doesn’t say, “Do this, and you will inherit eternal life.”  He simply says, “Do this, and you will live.”  Life is happening now, and when you walk in the way of love, when God and neighbor and self are brought together under the banner of love, then we begin to truly live.

And so, as Jesus himself states, the lawyer has found the right answer.

In the other accounts, this is where the exchange ends.  The original question has been addressed, the parties are in agreement, and there’s nothing left to discuss.  Mark goes so far as to say, “After this, no one dared to ask Jesus any question.”

But here, with Luke’s telling, we’re just warming up.  This exchange is picking up steam, the dialogue so far serving as something of an opening act to the main event, what we know as the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

This passage is today’s lectionary reading, but we’ve decided to stick with it throughout the month of July.  It’s a parable that has made its way into the cultural lexicon well beyond the world of religion, but it’s often referenced in simplistic ways.  The parable has enough dimensions that there’s plenty of material to keep us going.    It’s also a fitting way for us to find our way back to a more intentional focus on antiracism, which we’ll carry through the end of the year.

So we will look into this parable – but we won’t get there today.  What I’m especially interested in at the onset is what prompts the telling of this famous parable.  Because it takes another question before Jesus wheels it out.

The questioner has answered his own question, correctly, but remains unsatisfied.  Jesus has rewarded him with the public honor of acknowledging his wise response, but has kept his own commentary to himself.

In looking over this familiar text again, I invite us to consider that this first part of the passage is about finding the right question rather than finding the right answer.

When the lawyer asks his follow up question, “And who is my neighbor?” I can almost hear Jesus saying, “Now that’s more like it.  That, my friend, is a good question.  Let me tell you a story.”  This second question is not one that Jesus will bounce back to the questioner.  He has some things to say about this, almost as if he’s been mulling this very question over for years and is thrilled someone else is also interested.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend I also consider a mentor, now over 70 years old.  A few years ago he said something to the effect that each person really only gets to pursue a couple questions in their life.  This has showed up in certain ways in his life as a biblical scholar, and likely rings true to all you PhD’s among us who find your question, your area of focus, and dig in deep to see what all you can discover.  It could also apply to other vocational settings.  The designer asks how they can create something both beautiful and useful.  The social worker asks how they can affirm and enrich the humanity of their clients.  The business owner asks how they can provide their service in a way that is efficient, fair, and profitable.  The pastor asks: Can I really milk this parable for a whole month?

More broadly speaking, the life of faith seems like it very much has to do with asking the right questions.  If we only get to really pursue a couple of them in our lives, then what are those questions, or perhaps the question, we want to be asking?  Depending on the question we ask, our lives will take on a very different shape.  The lawyer’s first question, if twisted for selfish gain, “How can I inherit eternal life” could lead to a rather shallow and self-centered existence.  Or, in its very extreme, could provide the spiritual backdrop of a suicide bomber assured of their place in paradise.  The lawyer’s second question, “And who is my neighbor?” could lead a white person like me to look at the events of the past week and consider how I am connected with the police killings of two more black men – Alton Sterling and Philando Castile – and the killing of five police officers – Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Patrick Zamarripa, and Brent Thompson.  Asking that question could lead one to an ever expanding definition of neighbor and neighborhood.

Before heading out to Camp Friedenswald last week I grabbed a book off my shelf to review in some spare moments.  It’s called Letters to a Young Poet and includes a collection of letters written over 100 years ago from the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke, addressed to an aspiring young writer who initiated the exchange.  The book only contains the letters of Rilke, but you can get a sense of what the young poet is asking through Rilke’s replies.  In one of his letters, Rilke writes this: “You are so young, you have not even begun, and I would beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything that is unsolved in your heart and to try to cherish the questions themselves, like closed rooms and like books written in a very strange tongue.  Do not search now for the answers which cannot be given you because you could not live them.  It is a matter of living everything.  Live the questions now.  Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer” (p. 21, 2002 edition)

Being guided by questions rather than certain answers is something that has almost come to define progressive Christianity.  It’s become a familiar and productive way to go about life, and this is a beautiful thing.  But it still remains for us to choose which questions we will be living.  What are the few, or the one question that we’ll stick with through life?  Maybe that’s question enough to get started.

I suggest that this prelude to the Parable of the Good Samaritan offers us one of those centering questions that we can live.  The lawyer begins by seeking an answer, but ends up finding a question.  “Who is my neighbor?”  It’s a question that can only be answered in the living of it.  A question that directs us close in to the heart of God, that beats with love for all creation, all creatures who have inherited life.

A ship for the storm | 19 June 2016

Text: Luke 8:16-25

It’s the time of year for church conferences.  This Thursday we’ll begin hosting the Central District annual gathering.  If this were an odd numbered year, we’d also be preparing for the national Mennonite Church USA Convention, which is usually over the fourth of July and often in a southern state.  Having Conventions in July in the South is one of the ways frugal Mennonites save money.  Next summer we’ll be in Florida, in Orlando.  The venue of course was decided some time ago, and up until last week the main association in our house with Orlando was whether the girls would get to go to Harry Potter world.

For the last week, Orlando has become synonymous with death and trauma.  There was unimaginable horror inside the Pulse nightclub directed against queer and trans Latinx folks.  Yesterday’s Pride Parade in Columbus was both a sobering and celebratative time for LGBT folks and allies to gather as a community and express solidarity with one another.

Like last week, we designated this Sunday as a time to do some reflecting on the life of the wider Mennonite church.  The timing in coincidental, but this being Pride weekend, and having Orlando so fresh in our minds, sharpens the question of how our deeply divided denomination will move forward in relationship to LGBT members among us.  Like last week, we are focusing on one of the scriptures that will be used during CDC worship services.  All three of those services are based on stories from Luke 8, which is right where the lectionary is these days.

Very early on, leaders of the Christian movement used the image of a ship or a boat, as a metaphor for the church.  Hints of this can be traced all the way back to the New Testament.  The letter of 1 Peter makes a connection between the death and resurrection one experiences through the waters of baptism, and the ark of Noah and his family that brought them through the ancient flood waters.  In the Noah myth, the ark, the ship, preserved human and animals through the overwhelming waters as the old world underwent a death and resurrection.  Even before Genesis tells that story, it portrays the world as a watery chaos.  Now the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from Elohim, the god, swept over the face of the waters.

In the second century, Clement of Alexandria noted that a sea vessel was one of the appropriate Christian symbols to use for a signet ring.

Church father Tertullian, writing in the second and third century, spoke of the ship in which the disciples were tossed back and forth on the sea as a figure for the church.

This symbol later became much more tangible in church architecture.  The traditional name for the main body of the church is the nave.  It means ship, and takes its name from the same Latin word we use for the navy.  The nave, the ship, is where the laity sits.  It holds the people.  Many centuries ago, church leaders recognized that the proverbial watery chaos out of which the world was created had not gone away.  What is needed, what we have been granted by God through the church, they believed, was a vessel to carry us through the floods and storms.

Looking up at the arching beams in some cathedrals is very much like looking down into the ribs of a ship.  This is by design.  I’m not sure what kind of ship it is we’re floating in here.  Definitely a Protestant ship.

Before the story of the boat on the stormy waters, Luke 8 contains another image of the church.  Luke writes: “Just then (Jesus’) mother and brothers came to see him, but they couldn’t get through the crowds.”  Supposedly this is Jesus’ biological mother and brothers, his kinship group that so thoroughly defined identity and responsibility in the ancient world.  As a son and brother, Jesus has a cultural/religious obligation of loyalty and honor toward his kin.  But in one crisp statement, Jesus redefines, or at least expands, the notion of family.  He says to those gathered around him, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”

This was most likely a very painful moment and ongoing source of tension for Jesus’ family of origin.  But it is pretty sweet for everyone else, those of us who are suddenly on the inside of Jesus’ kinship group.  It’s a prominent metaphor for the church that we continue to use.  The church as a family, defined not by blood or ethnic lines, but by a common commitment to hear the Word, however that might come to us.  And to do it.  We are the clan of the hearers and doers.  Or, as one friend has put it:  The “tryers.”  We try.  Those responsibilities once reserved for closest of kin now apply to the church.  To care for one another.  To support and visit each other when we’re sick, or in prison.  To bake a casserole.  To give when we can give, and receive when we need to receive.  Or at least try.  This is how healthy families function.  The church comes into being under the banner of a new kinship group.  And the repercussions of this, still working themselves out, have never been smooth sailing.

It’s at this point in Luke’s gospel, not so coincidentally, when Jesus and his disciples, spiritual siblings all, climb into the boat to go to the other side of the lake.  Observant commentators have pointed out that when the gospels speak of going to “the other side” of the lake, the sea of Galilee, that this is loaded with symbolic significance.  Roughly speaking, the western side of that body of water was populated by Jews, while the eastern side was populated by Gentiles – non Jews.  The story right after this lake crossing is when Jesus encounters Legion, and unclean tombs, and pigs.  Very un-Jewish.  Going to the other side is an act of bridging and connecting the human family, separated by the waters, now, in process of being brought together under the banner of a new kinship group.  Going to the “other side” is not a smooth ride.

And so, while Jesus takes a well-deserved nap on board, a windstorm sweeps down on the lake, and the boat is nearly overwhelmed.  As it fills with water, the newly dubbed siblings scramble to wake up their elder brother Jesus, shouting: “Master, Master, we are perishing!”  We’re dying in here!  In this story, church father Tertullian found a ready-made metaphor for life in this imperfect family, this precarious ship, we refer to as ‘the church.’  The church as a ship, a boat, holding us through dangerous and stormy waters, accompanied by Jesus.

One of the things I see now in the Mennonite Church in the US is that just about everybody agrees we’re in the middle of a storm, but we disagree sharply about what the storm is.  For some, the storm is the dangerous waters of secularism.  The storm is trying to carry us away from our biblical foundations.  The church is to carry us safely through these waves of cultural deterioration that threaten to take us down.  For others, the storm is the dangerous waters of religious fundamentalism.  The church is the space where we can breathe fresh air even as the rigid readings of scripture, within our own tradition and others, threaten to drown the human spirit.

For some the storm is caused by who we are letting on board the ship, and for others, the storm is caused by those who keep people off the ship.

There’s a mighty storm raging, but when what some people believe to be beautiful and faithful is seen by others as the very cause of the storm, where does that leave us?

This past week I had some exchange with a friend who has worked relentlessly for the last decade to make the national Mennonite church a welcoming place for folks who identify as queer.  This person has been met with much resistance.  One of my questions to them, asked out of genuine curiosity but also concern, was this: “Why do you and other queer folks remain engaged with the Mennonite Church?  It seems something akin to (or just is) an abusive relationship.  Why invest precious emotional energy toward an unrepentant system?”

Their response: “This is…a very good question.  One I’ve been considering deeply lately.  It’s an open question for me.”

The truth of the matter is that untold numbers of LGBT folks have had to leave the Mennonite and other churches for their own soul survival.  I haven’t seen any write ups on how anyone in the Pulse club in Orlando related with religion, but I have no doubt that for many of them, Pulse was their ship.  Pulse was their sanctuary in the storm.  Pulse was the place where they knew they were with family, an extended kinship group abounding in a love they may not have encountered anywhere outside those walls.

The church is a ship, but it appears there are many other vessels afloat on these waters.  And I would venture to say that Christ is very much alive and present in Pulse, and other places of sanctuary, declaring “Peace, be still.”  Rebuking the wind and raging waves.

When theologians have spoken of ‘the church’ they have meant, by and large, the church universal.  That’s catholic, little “c,” church.  “I believe in the holy catholic church,” the Apostles Creed says.  The church is greater than a single congregation, greater than a conference or denomination, greater than national boundaries.  It is not a little fishing boat.  It is an ocean liner.

I recognize this is not how most of us here experience the church.  It’s a truism these days in church leadership circles that people don’t join a denomination, they join a congregation.  In other words, most of you might care hardly at all about what Mennonite Church USA is doing.  What matters is that you are journeying with this group of people, this eccentric extended family, who you see face to face, some of whom literally walk alongside you through life.  Yet, it remains, that to be in this church is also to be in the bigger boat, whether we like it or not.  If you have mixed feelings about this, you are not alone.

I have nothing conclusive to say about any of this.  I’m grateful that our congregation is working at being a place of sanctuary and bravery for queer folks and those of us learning how to be allies.  I’m grateful we’re talking about white privilege and black lives matter and intersectionality.  I’m grateful we are a part of a tradition that names its rejection of violence in all forms, even if we aren’t living up to the high calling.  I’m saddened that some have to leave in order to survive.

I have to believe that the boat is not merely a floatation devise riding out the waves, but that we are actually going somewhere.  I don’t even know if the denominational ship will hold together at this point, but there is some boat, somewhere, that is headed to the other side, and I want to be on board.  We are headed to the glorious and unknown other side.  Even if you don’t know what you believe about God and Jesus and salvation and church and all that, you know intuitively that this cannot be a solo journey, and we have chosen a group of people to journey with together.  Friends, we surely have not yet arrived, but we are on our way to the other side.  And whether he’s napping, or on the lookout, or hanging out on the deck, or dancing to the pulse of the music with all the dark skinned queers, the Christ is with us.  And that’s good news.  Lord knows, we need some help in these waters.